Many athletes, from Pop Warner to the NFL, participate in American football each fall. Petrochemicals play a vital role in the game, from the plastics in the equipment used to play the sport to the artificial turf to the souvenirs and cups used for beverage consumption every game. In honor of the return of football season and the games that will be played across the country tonight, let’s take a look at the plastics that make up the typical football uniform, field, and ball.
The outer shell of today’s helmets is made of a polycarbonate alloy with protective liners, some of which are inflatable, and contains foams used to absorb energy on impact. The face mask is made of either plastic or steel wire coated with a thermoplastic made of a polyethylene copolymer. The foams inside the helmet are made of vinyl nitrile, a blend of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and nitrile rubber.
The shoulder pads beneath the player’s jersey are made of a hard plastic outer shell with foam underneath used to absorb a large amount of energy. The outer shell of some of the newer shoulder pads is made of a carbon fiber, produced from petroleum or coal tar pitch and polyacrylonitrile.
The foam beneath the shoulder pads and also used for the thigh, knee, tail, and hip pads is made using ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), which is a copolymer of ethylene and vinyl acetate (aka VAM).
Football jerseys are made of a comfortable, durable, and expandable fabric made mostly of nylon with polyester and spandex. Most nylon is of nylon 6 and nylon 66. Nylon 6 is produced by polymerizing caprolactam, which is made from cyclohexane or phenol. Nylon 66 is made by the polymerization of adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine (HMD). Polyester, as a material, is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET, also referred to as PETE, is mostly known for the production of water bottles to the average person, but the majority of the material is used in for the production of fibers used in clothing. Spandex fibers are produced by reacting polyglycol and diisocyanate monomer to produce the elastomer. Diisocyanates are the building blocks to make a wide range of polyurethane (PU) products, including foams in furniture, bedding, and, perhaps in bygone days, foams in pads for American football.
It is difficult to explain specifically all the materials used in today’s football cleats because there are so many brands, and each brand has different models, with some even customized for the athlete. However, generally the materials used for the upper part of the shoe are synthetic leather, nylon, or polyester. The shoelaces can be cotton and/or nylon. The insole/midsole is made of either PU or EVA. The outsole of the shoe must be durable to gain traction with the different turfs, and most shoes used in the sport today use a screw-on cleat made of steel and nylon polymer.
Originally, football was played on natural grass, but in the 1960s, natural grass became costly to maintain in domed fields. In 1966, artificial turf was used for the first time in professional football. Initially the artificial grass was referred to as ‘Chemgrass’, but was later renamed to ‘AstroTurf’ after making its debut in the Houston Astrodome. The fibers are made of nylon, polypropylene (PP), or polyethylene. Today’s artificial turf not only looks more like real grass, but is much safer for players with added cushioning provided by the added high-grade rubber surrounding each fiber, now made with PE that is more player friendly.
The NFL footballs are made of the highest quality cowhides that are cut, sewed inside out, and laced around the bladder made of butyl rubber, a copolymer of isobutylene with isoprene. Isoprene is a byproduct of the ethylene production process using naphtha or gas oil as a feedstock.
Platts assesses several polymers on a regional basis. Some of these polymers include polystyrene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polypropylene (PP). The chart below shows the average prices for the polymers mentioned above over the last 12 months.
It is difficult to account for all the petrochemicals around the sport, but there are many other petrochemical-made products surrounding the sport this fall, including: replica jerseys made from nylon, polyester, and spandex; foam fingers made from PU; the cheerleaders’ megaphones made from PP; souvenir beverage cups made from PP, etc. There are some instances where plastics make their way into the construction of football stadiums. For example, in some stadiums, seating is made of a solid injection molded plastic. Most electronic scoreboards are made of various plastics, and in some cases, like the new Atlanta football stadium opening in 2017, polymers can be used for the stadium roof and exterior.
Are you ready for some football?
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